Black Mass: Film Review
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson
Director: Scott Cooper
From the acting ashes, rises Johnny Depp.
Ever the buffoon on screen, Depp rediscovers his acting roots in a return to form that'll make you forgive and forego his outings as Mortdecai, Jack Sparrow and that vampire from Dark Shadows.
In this grimy gangster flick, Depp is Jimmy Whitey Bulger, the notorious Boston criminal who made his way into the headlines in the way the likes of Henry Hill and Tony Soprano rose through the ranks. But it turns out that Bulger was playing the FBI in the shape of former street buddy, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, all highly coiffed hair and braggadacio) and getting the FBI to do his work for him, taking out other crime-lords and leaving the streets open to his taking.
Out Of the Furnace director Cooper is well versed in the likes of the grime, having shepherded Christian Bale through a role of misery in a drab setting - and here, he once again drains the palette of all colour and the story of all forms of life. Horrendous 70s beige, browns and moustaches bedeck the admittedly all-star (but under-utilised) cast and surroundings as the story unfolds.
And in the centre of all the dour and drab story is Depp's Bulger, a gangster villain that's gone the way via an undead creature, Blow, Donnie Brasco, liver spots, One Hour Photo and a pastiche of every criminal with a seething edge we've seen before.
A scene early on sees him issuing parenting advice under the umbrella of "It's not what you do, it's when and how you do it" that serve as a tone for his conduct within the turf wars and tantalisingly hints at what could have been given the film's joyful insistence on refusing to glorify the way of the gangs and those caught in their thrall.
Equally, a one-on-one sequence with Connolly's wife, who's become so appalled by the circles her husband's running in, crackles with unease and monstrous uncertainty. Depp's almost inhuman Bulger is perhaps the best part of Black Mass and solely the reason to watch. It's a film that ironically never really reaches critical mass due to an ineptly paced script that misses all the emotional beats. Key moments and characters in Bulger's life (such as his wife and son) simply disappear at wildly inappropriate moments, as they fall by the narrative wayside.
It's not a film that builds an ascent and plots a rapid descent for any of its protagonists, a route which many like Goodfellas and Casino have gone before - and unfortunately while to be commended for doing something different, it never quite negotiates its own route as it jumps between Connolly, Bulger and those around them. Some of the problem is that the script dictates time jumps and leap frogs emotional moments in the script that would go more to creating a portrait of Bulger and a reason for his rallying paranoia - the same goes for Connolly whose seduction into Bulger's world is all too easy. Equally, falling back on using interviews as exposition becomes lazy and a get-out clause for Cooper's story - and replaces anything transpiring on screen and serving to build character and elicit empathy or sympathy for anyone involved.
Ultimately, when the comeuppance for all arises, the consequences of this mass of errors and dour maudlin preceding is that there's a palpable lack of any kind of catharsis or joy; and a post film coda lacks any kind of resonance and frustratingly hints at where a better film would lie; Black Mass skirts around the character of Bulger and as a result, doesn't serve either him, the supporting players or the audience in the way that perhaps a great gangster film should have done.